Chhutni Devi: Jharkhand’s brand ambassador in the fight against witch-hunting

Urvashi Dev Rawal
08 Mar 2021
Chhutni Devi: Jharkhand’s brand ambassador in the fight against witch-hunting

Chhutni Devi: Jharkhand’s brand ambassador in the fight against witch-hunting 30 stades india


Chhutni Mahato, the face of the anti-witch hunting campaign in Jharkhand, does not like to talk about the torture she went through after being branded a witch by her husband’s family 25 years back.


Behind the confidence that Chhutni exudes today is a gruesome tale of torment that she underwent before emerging as a saviour for women branded as witches in the remote villages of Jharkhand - India's sixth-poorest state by per capita income. 

As per the National Crime Records Bureau, 15 women were killed in Jharkhand in 2019 after they were believed to be practicing witchcraft. On a pan-India basis, there were 102 witchcraft-related murders in 2019, with Chhattisgarh leading the tally at 22 deaths.

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The night that changed Chhutni’s life

In India’s remote villages where illiteracy remains a challenge, women are victimised on various grounds to settle personal scores, grab their land and property and keep them at a subservient position in society.

In 1995, Chhutni was branded a witch by her husband’s family after her niece fell ill. The family said Chhutni had cast an evil eye on the girl. A local ojha (witch doctor) was called to exorcise the evil spirit from Chhutni’s body.


The ojha decided that Chhutni would be made to eat human excreta and drink urine to cure her niece. She was abused and beaten by her family and villagers.

A terrified Chhutni fled her husband’s home in Mataladih village in Saraikela district of Jharkhand, about 115 km from the state capital Ranchi. She left in the cover of darkness with her four children and walked to her brother’s house in Birbans village, about 35 km away.

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Chhutni Devi (extreme left) works with women who were once branded 'witches'. Pic: courtesy Free Legal Aid Committee

Twenty-five years after that dark night, Chhutni has won the Padma Shri for her fight against witch-hunting.

She runs a support centre near her home with the help of Free Legal Aid Committee, an NGO, and has helped rehabilitate more than 125 women who were branded witches.


But the award has meant heightened media attention and throngs of people who come to congratulate her in her small house. She sometimes balks at the media for digging into her past and says the reporters misrepresent what she says.

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But talk about her work and she lights up and talks confidently about how she has helped women who were subjected to inhuman torture.


From being branded a witch to turning saviour of women

Prem Chand, Chairman of the Free Legal Aid Committee, who has rehabilitated and supported Chhutni and brought her to the forefront of the war against witch-hunting, says she was a broken woman when he first met her.

Prem Chand (Centre), Chairman, Free Legal Aid Committee. He rehabilitated and supported Chhutni Devi. Pic: courtesy Free Legal Aid Committee

“She was illiterate, had no money, no support and would break down often recalling the horror she had been through,” he says.

Chhutni was doubly disadvantaged. “She was a woman from the underprivileged Mahato community and illiterate."

"So you can imagine her plight,” he says.

The Free Legal Aid Committee made Chhutni the brand ambassador, so to speak, of the campaign against witch-hunting. The FLAC team counselled Chhutni and instilled confidence in her. They told her that ojhas are misleading people and witch-hunting is nothing but a sham.

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“We needed a face to our campaign. So when we did agitations or seminars, we took 20-25 women victims with us and Chhutni would be at the forefront. Slowly she gained confidence after facing the media, meeting officials, ministers and speaking in conferences in India,” he says.

In 1997, FLAC helped set-up a small office for Chhutni in Birbans where she helped women victims of witch-hunting. Her home has always been open to every woman branded as a witch. 

Today, Chhutni has a team of 60-70 women, who were once regarded as witches, in her fight against this scourge. 

The moment FLAC volunteers learn about any woman being tortured as a witch, they reach the spot and extend their support.

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Prem Chand says Birbans panchayat has emerged as a model village where witch-hunting has been eradicated. “This was possible only because Chhutni showed courage to take the first step and, slowly, the society came forward and stood up for the women victims.”

Witch hunting statistics in India, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand top the list. 30 Stades NCRB

He is now planning a new initiative to eradicate witch-hunting. “We are creating theatre teams with women victims and their family members who will spread awareness about this evil practice through plays. Chhutni is very happy and said her daughter in law will also participate.”

Witch-hunting - why the practice continues

Prem Chand says the scourge of witch-hunting is still widely prevalent in Jharkhand among the SC, ST and backward communities. Educated people too believe in ‘witches’.

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Locally, these communities have a customary practice of Sendra, or killing the evil. When they kill a woman ‘witch’, they proudly declare that they have performed Sendra.

Women can be branded witches on any pretext - if someone falls ill or dies, if there is a drought in the village, cattle fall ill or if the crop fails. The family, villagers and ojhas, all get together to declare a woman a witch and then they are punished to exorcise the evil.

“I have cases of 50 to 60 women who were forced to eat human excreta and drink urine, were beaten up, paraded naked in their villages. This is all seen as normal.”

There are cases where women, branded as witches, were made to stay with dead bodies and told to restore the person to life or to eat the dead body, he says.

Ojhas wield unquestioning influence on villagers in Jharkhand. Access to healthcare is limited in the state. People go to ojhas for treatment as they know about medicinal herbs and plants. “Ojhas give medicines and perform pujas to cure people. So people have blind faith in them,” he says.

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Chhutni Devi and Prem Chand have made Birbans panchayat free of witch-hunting through their efforts. Pic: courtesy Free Legal Aid Committee

Jharkhand ranks among the top states in India in the number of witch-hunting cases. In 2018, a total of 26 people were killed on suspicion of practicing witchcraft in the state while in 2017 the number was 41. Between 2013 and 2016, Jharkhand was at top spot in the country in the number of witch-hunting murders.

The Free Legal Aid Committee, set up in 1977 to work on human rights protection, has since 1991 been at the forefront of the fight against dayan pratha or branding women witches in Bihar and Jharkhand.

It was due to the efforts of FLAC and Prem Chand that an anti-witch hunting law was passed both in Bihar and Jharkhand. Bihar was the first state in India to get the ‘Dayan Pratha Pratishedh Adhiniyam’ 1999. Jharkhand state, which was formed in 2000, brought in a law in 2001.

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Prem Chand says illiteracy and superstition are drivers of witch-hunting. The social evil is still prevalent in 16 states of India and seven states have passed anti witch-hunting laws.

“Despite the law, there is no let-up in cases. It shows that the central government needs to work on mission mode to eradicate superstition in India by 2046, which will be the centenary of our independence. The government needs to work on all aspects such as health, education, awareness, social and economic fronts if we have to win the battle against witch-hunting,” he says.

As for Chhutni, her fight continues.

Asked how she gathered courage after undergoing her ordeal, she says it was God’s grace and will.  

“No one can help a person till they are ready to help themselves. I showed determination and awakened my soul.”

“I am fighting for change. I don’t want any other woman to face what I went through. If 10 women come forward and become Chhutni Mahatos, we can end this scourge,” she says.

(Urvashi Dev Rawal is a Jaipur-based journalist specialising in development, gender, and political reporting)

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